The moment a rookie leg-spinner dished out a jaw-dropping delivery against Mike Gatting in 1993, the landscape of the Ashes had changed forever. The spinner in focus, Shane Warne, went on to become a lynchpin in the Aussie attack and would torment the English with his guile, flight, dip, drift, topspin and every other variation known to mankind for over a decade.
Warne was the perfect foil for Australia’s battery of seamers, so much so that the English started yearning for a Warne of their own.
They had witnessed first-hand what a leg-spinner at his very best could do to batting line-ups. They had seen Warne run through their lower order, bamboozling and teasing them to commit a mistake. They had seen Warne rip apart a sturdy top order batsman with remarkable thinking and even better execution. They had seen him pick wickets at will and win matches on his own. They needed him. More than anything.
By the turn of the century, England were prepared to give any leggie who could turn the ball a chance in the national side. They were prepared to go the whole nine yards for a Warne and spent sleepless nights trying to discover one of their own.
Yes! England was that child who succumbed to the green-eyed monster and wanted the fancy toy his playmate at nursery possessed. They would crib, cry, get angry and try a vast number of leg-spinners their selectors gave them but never could find anyone remotely as good.
In 2000, Chris Schofield, a rookie leggie was fast-tracked to the England Test team and handed a contract, becoming one among just 12 players to get one of ECB’s first central contracts. He didn’t bowl in his first Test, a green haven where he wasn’t required and went wicketless in the 108 balls he bowled in his second outing.
He was never seen again.
For years, the country grappled around to find a decent enough leg-spinner but just couldn’t. That they were the worst players of leg-spin among Test playing nations compounded their woes.
Then came Graeme Swann. The wily off-spinner was a potent match-winner and became widely celebrated as one of England’s best spinners. He figured in 60 Tests over a five-year span, averaging a shade under 30 and picking up 255 scalps including 17 five-wicket hauls.
For a while, England forgot about their obsession with wrist-spinners. They had Swann who could win matches of his own with the ball. Alongside Monty Panesar, another extremely talented left-arm spinner, Swann even helped England win a Test series in India, a mighty feat in the dry, dust bowl where India rule the roost.
It was an unprecedented success for an English side and they basked in glory and forgot all about their search for the next Warne.
But the Aussies had a way of reminding their arch-rivals and after inflicting three consecutive defeats on the English in 2013-14 Down Under, Swann retired mid-way through the series causing a lot of ruckuses and leaving England with no backup plan.
It was like one of those break-up stories where all the feelings gush back in when you are left empty. England were back to square one and the fruitless search for their own Warne resumed.
A year later they were trying Scott Borthwick, a batsman more than a leggie, who managed four wickets in one Test but was dumped unceremoniously because England weren’t looking at mediocrity.
If only they had watched Borthwick in County, they would have known that he offers little more than that. England weren’t bothered though. They would skip from one spinner to another till they found another Warne.
It was 2015 now, and plausibly (no conclusive evidence of the jealousy) fifteen years since England had begun their futile hunt.
Enter Adil Rashid, highly touted by Warne himself and a tormentor in the Yorkshire ranks. He had everything a leg-spinner would crave for. A fabulous, ripping, leg-spinner, plenty of bounce, a perfect top spinner and a decent googly. In 2015, he worked with Shane Warne in Sharjah during the Pakistan series where he made his debut and the legendary Aussie spinner was effusive in his praise for Rashid.
“When anyone first starts their Test career, it takes time to see the best of them. What we’ve seen already from Rashid are some glimpses of magic. All of us need to be a little bit patient with him and he needs to be patient, too. He was getting the ball to shape, spin and bounce and he was pretty happy with that. There are not too many people going around with a better leg-break than Rashid’s. He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen, ever. So it just comes down now to having that confidence, backing yourself in the middle of a game”, Warne had told then.
But 10 Tests into his career, England concluded that he was a misfit to their Test plans. Their relentless pace bowling attack needed a containing, yet attacking leggie. Rashid was all about attack, attack and attack but he leaked far too many runs to England’s liking.
Besides, with Moeen Ali also available and being an indispensable force, Rashid was surplus to requirements. If the Yorkshire leggie could bowl anywhere close to what Warne anticipated, he would have replaced Moeen the moment the off-spinner’s form wavered. But that never quite materialised.
Right at this time, a young, less than 20-year old leg-break bowler from Hampshire started creating a hullabaloo. On his T20 debut in July 2015, Crane dismissed Kumar Sangakkara and in five months time had done enough to be picked in England’s under-19 squad for the 2016 World Cup.
That year he left to play grade cricket in Sydney and by March 2017, he was the first overseas player to play for New South Wales since Imran Khan in 1984. A few months later he was in England’s Test squad and when the Ashes touring party was announced, Crane was the lone spinner aside from Moeen Ali in the England team.
While Crane was basically picked as a back-up, Ali’s injury meant that the leggie played in two warm-up games and returned having done a formidable job. It must give England the belief that if at all a situation pops up, Crane can be relied upon. The leggie was tight with his lines and bowled well within his limitations while catching the eye of everyone watching with some pretty good leg-spinners. But he isn’t in a hurry to make a Test debut having watched how Simon Kerrigan was smacked around the park on his debut.
At the time of his Sheffield Shield debut, Crane had said, “I’d rather play Test cricket when I’m properly ready. The last thing I want is to play too early, not so great and then not get another look-in for a few years. I want the time to be right.”
But that was a year ago and he now knows that he is first in line to replace Ali should an emergency arise. The young spinner is prepared to shoulder the burden even if it means he has to make his debut on the unforgiving WACA wicket. “I feel like if I was called upon tomorrow, I’d be confident to go out and play,” he had said in Perth. “I’m very confident I could do a job. I’m just going to presume I’m playing in every game and if I do that is great. I’ve got to be prepared to play in every game on this tour because I never know when I’ll be called upon.”
Interestingly, it was Stuart MacGill, long dismissed in the shadow of Shane Warne, who helped Crane during his time with New South Wales. The former leg-spinner probably knows a bit or two about being sidelined and has directed Crane’s passion the right way.
After all, leg-spinners are freaks and Crane seems like one of the highest order.
“All I ever wanted to do was bowl,” he had told All Out Cricket. “Soon enough I’d accidentally bowled a googly and it goes from there, learning how to disguise it. Legspin is like that. It’s addictive. When you can turn it both ways, there’s always something new to try.”
That’s Shane Warne at 20 for you, England. You can choose to nurture him or throw him in at the deep end but your choice could not only alter the career of young Crane but also change the landscape of spin bowling in the country.